Saturday 26 March 2016

Rereadathon the Third: Part two - Saturday 26th - Wednesday 30th March


I finished American Gods yesterday, and although I've read it several times now, I'm feeling a hint of a book hangover; I can't get Shadow and Laura, Wednesday and Mr Nancy and all the rest out of my head. I spent the evening yesterday at a 50th birthday party, which was a really lovely evening, and read most of the stories in Through the Woods, a collection of gothic fairy tales in comic-book form. I left the last one until this morning, however. I remembered being really creeped out by one of the illustrations, and didn't really want that to be the image left in my mind after lights out. Yes, I'm a wimp.

And today I've got stuck back into Anne of Green Gables. If I must buy lots of different editions of my favourite book since childhood, it's only right that I read each one, and I've got a lovely collector's library, pocket-sized with gold edges and illustrations. I know that book inside out. If I found myself in the dystopian world of Fahrenheit 451, where books are banned and live on only because people memorise them word for word, Anne would be mine. I don't know it word for word,  and yet I can identify it from a half-glimpsed sentence on an e-reader screen. I can tell if the wording is slightly different from one edition to another. This copy I'm reading today has Marilla saying she didn't want a "Barnardo boy" instead of "'home' child," which was the wording I knew from my existing three copies. When was this changed?

It really struck me today how little legal protection orphans had back in the nineteenth century, when Anne of Green Gables was set. For one thing, Marilla and Matthew just decided the night before, that if Mrs Spencer was going over to the orphanage in Nova Scotia to adopt a child, she might as well pick one up for them too at the same time - like she's running grocery errands for them. There's no paperwork, they don't even need to go to the orphanage themselves to be assessed (hence the mix-up when they wanted a boy and got Anne instead.) Yes, Matthew and Marilla are good people, but they could be anyone. Mrs Spencer doesn't even take Anne all the way to Green Gables, but drops her off at the Bright River railway station in a strange place where she knows no one.  There's no follow-up; once Anne's off the hands of the orphanage trustees, we never hear from them again. If it weren't for Marilla's change of heart, she could have been fobbed off onto the awful Mrs Blewett and worked half to death, and no one would have any record of where she went or what happened to her. It's all rather sombre to think of what could have happened, if the story had gone differently.

Saturday Stats

Books read from: Through the Woods - Emily Carroll
Anne of Green Gables - L. M. Montgomery
Pages read: 202
Books finished this week: 2
Favourite reread so far: American Gods. 
On the menu: tuna couscous pot, apple, easter egg

Sunday and Monday

Although it's currently quite sunny, the last couple of days have been very temperamental weather-wise with Storm Katie hitting yesterday evening. (I had nothing to do with it, I swear!) So the usual Easter walk has been postponed, and I spent most of yesterday afternoon finishing Anne of Green Gables. What makes Anne stand out from the other children's books of the late 19th and early 20th century, is the way that L. M. Montgomery captures the spirit of childhood in a rural community. Anne is neither sickeningly good, nor do the scrapes she gets in read as though written as a moral lesson to the reader. Montgomery gently laughs at Anne's eccentricities, but does not diminish the soaring highs and crashing lows that might seem mundane but are important to the child. Anne is one of life's optimists, but you read enough sorrow between the lines to keep the sweetness from becoming cloying; the down-to-earth humour keeps Anne's precociousness from becoming twee. She's a bright, sparky child who has survived a tough life - having to care for her former foster mother's eight children (with twins three times in succession) while little more than an infant herself - through the escape of books and imagination. So it's heartwarming to see her delight as she discovers the simple pleasures: eating ice cream, sleeping in a spare-room bed, and to finally discover people who love her unconditionally. 

I've no idea how many times I've read Anne. As a child I would read the same books over and over and over again, and a family friend's enduring image of me is reading that book, with my hair in pigtails and wearing a straw summer hat. But it still has the power to make me laugh and love and cry. I cried twice yesterday, once when the uptight, repressed Marilla half-grieves that Anne has to grow up, and the other time - well, you know which part!

Today, (Monday) I switched off my alarm and let myself sleep as late as I liked (which was pretty late) although the weather outside gave me some strange and frightening dreams. As I've already said, I've been getting into a routine even on days when I'm not working, but bank holidays are different. Today I ought to take a break from the rereadathon to catch up with The Stand for this week's readalong segment with Judith (which reminds me, I need to type up last week's notes.) But I also want to get started on my reread of The Charioteer. 

Sunday Stats:

Books read from: Anne of Green Gables - L. M. Montgomery
Pages read today: 267
Total books finished: 3
Favourite reread so far: American Gods and Anne of Green Gables tie
On the menu: hot cross buns, Easter egg (seeing a theme here?) apple, sour cream and garlic Graze crostini snack

Monday Stats:

Books read from: The Charioteer - Mary Renault
Pages read today: 220
Total books finished: 3
Favourite reread so far: American Gods and Anne of Green Gables tie, but The Charioteer is up there too. Look, they're all excellent! That's why I'm rereading them.
On the menu: Bit of Rocky Road Easter egg, caramel shortbread, apple, Graze snacks.

Tuesday and Wednesday:

It's the last evening of the rereadathon, but I could quite happily do another week, and maybe I will, unofficially; I've still got Monstrous Regiment and Miranda Hart's autobiography, as well as others which got added to my mental list after the books I did read - notably, Anne of Avonlea and Anansi Boys. Yesterday (Tuesday) I spent the evening away from the rereads, as I was a bit behind on my reading of The Stand, although I came back to The Charioteer for another chapter before bed, and over breakfast this morning. The problem with having two books on the go at once - especially when they are two good books - is that you can't choose which one to pick up. But for now, I think I'll aim to finish The Charioteer by the end of today. I'm feeling a little sleepy, however, and might fall asleep quite early.


I finished The Charioteer at about 11PM, and I think I'm more satisfied with the ending on the second reading. Although I've concluded it is a happy ending, I find myself wondering about how the story will continue past the last page, and how much of a rollercoaster ride the characters are in for when the book is closed. I don't think that their problems will go away as easily as they, or we, would like. But they will endure the storms together, of that much I'm sure.

I am writing about these ink-and-paper people as if they are real, alive today, and that the next page is tomorrow, despite The Charioteer being written in the 1950s and set in the 1940s. That's the power of books, and why we like to return to books we've already read - to reacquaint ourselves with old friends, and try to know them better. When I was about 17, I read an author's afterward for a novel I studied at school, where they wrote something along the lines of, "People keep asking me what happened to the characters after the events of the book. Nothing happened! It's a story! They don't exist off the page!" I'm certainly misquoting this author's words, and probably misrepresenting what they were trying to say, but it was the message I took away, and I've never quite forgiven that author since. 

Tuesday Stats:

Rereadathon books read from: The Charioteer - Mary Renault
Rereadathon pages read today: 31
Other reading: The Stand - Stephen King
Total books finished: 3
Favourite reread: Anne, American Gods (see above)
On the menu: Apple, Bit of Easter egg, Graze cheesey corn snack

Wednesday Stats:

Rereadathon books read from: The Charioteer - Mary Renault
Rereadathon pages read today: 168
Other reading: The Stand - Stephen King
Total books finished: 4
Favourite reread: See above
On the menu: Special K cereal, chocolate brownie bites.

Final summary:

Books read: American Gods - Neil Gaiman
Through the Woods - Emily Carroll
Anne of Green Gables - L. M. Montgomery
The Charioteer - Mary Renault
Pages read: 1592
Best reading day: Sunday (267 pages)
Average: 159 pages per day

Thanks again to Bex for hosting the rereadathon. I've really enjoyed it. Another one in the autumn perhaps? 

Tuesday 22 March 2016

Mini Book Reviews: The Rental Heart by Kirsty Logan, Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales - Kirsty Logan

Kirsty Logan's first novel, The Gracekeepers, was one of my most memorable reads of last year; a haunting, hypnotic tale set in a watery future world. When I bought it on one of my London bookshopping trips, the chatty bookseller told me that it had originated from one of the short stories in Logan's award-winning collection. The burnt-out doll's house on the front cover represents well the unsettling nature of the stories. These are not cosy tales; many are about longing and disappointment, making do and wanting more. Each sentence is carefully crafted, made up of what is said and what is left unspoken, and I had to linger a while after each story, taking in what I'd just read, before I could move on to the next.

Some of these stories are more obviously fairytales: the tales of witches in the woods, clockwork men, children with antlers and tails. Others borrow familiar tropes and imagery, and twist them around to make you rethink. The settings are contemporary, historical, and fantastical: France and Scotland, Australia and New Orleans, a blending of the magical and the mundane,

I wonder what it is about the language of fairytales that is so appealing to the adult reader. Some of
Writers have reclaimed the storytelling form, rejecting the sugar-sweet sanitised fables that the Victorians, and later Walt Disney, marked out with their own style. Kirsty Logan uses the fantastical settings and techniques to explore darker themes, primal fears, the shadows that lurk at the edge of sight.

Harriet - Elizabeth Jenkins

Elizabeth Jenkins' 1934 novel Harriet was another Bookshop Crawl purchase, one of two books republished and sold by Persephone Books.  The titular Harriet is a wealthy thirty-two year old woman sought in marriage by Lewis Oman, an unscrupulous cad who is quite clearly only interested in her money. Harriet has an unspecified learning disability, and she takes little convincing that Lewis is in love with her, but no one else is fooled for a moment. Yet Harriet has no legal protection: she may have a child's mind, but she is an adult of independent means, and if she chooses to marry an unsuitable man, there is nothing to prevent her from doing just that. With Mrs Ogilvy, the reader has to sit back and watch disaster unfold.

Elizabeth Jenkins raises a lot of uncomfortable questions in her narrative: what can Mrs Ogilvy do? To meddle in her daughter's affairs will set her new son-in-law against her, and yet for her to submit so easily when she knows Lewis is manipulating Harriet, to conclude with her husband that "Lewis is a most objectionable young man, no doubt, but many people's daughters do much worse," seems defeatist, almost callous. What could Mrs Ogilvy do?

Harriet is a disquieting read, for the insight given into the minds of Lewis Oman and his family, as their manipulation of a vulnerable woman slips into neglect and abuse. Jenkins never shows the family planning their cruelties, just how they excuse their increasingly brutal behaviour. Her skill is in letting the reader work out for themselves what will not be explicitly spelled out by the narrative or admitted by Harriet's husband and in-laws, even to themselves. The more they shut Harriet out of sight and put her out of mind, the more excuses they make to themselves, because, to them, Harriet is an inconvenience, an embarrassment, not a full human being. And with such an attitude, the consequences seem inevitable. Jenkins took the facts from the reports of a real-life trial, and spun a tale that could attempt to explain how seemingly-ordinary people could be capable of great evil. An understated but chilling and important read.

Monday 21 March 2016

Rereadathon the Third: Part One - Monday 21st - Friday 25th March

It's here! I always enjoy taking time out to reread and rediscover some of my old favourite books, but I also have piles and piles of NEW books I'm always trying to keep on top of. So last year the fabulous Bex came up with the Rereadathon: a week or two for us to focus on just enjoying the company of these old friends, guilt-free.

The Pile:

Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
The Charioteer by Mary Renault
Is It Just Me? by Miranda Hart
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll


I've been trying to get into a steady routine on my days off, to start the day with an hour and a half writing session straight after breakfast. I'd been finding that I'd intend to read a little when I woke, and then "just one more chapter" would kick in and I'd get nothing productive done at all, being so caught up in the book world that I'd struggle to switch over to my own story. Today, in fact, a designated readathon day, the opposite happened; it's been a pretty good writing session, but I didn't want to stop. But stop I must, as my best friend is coming over this evening for our The Stand book club (which really needs a proper book club name, and maybe badges too!) and I had to tidy up, make the place presentable, and of course buy wine. I've got American Gods lined up to kick off the rereadathon; the news that's been trickling out onto the internet about the casting for the TV adaptation has made me really keen to rediscover Shadow's story, and all the little stories that make up Gaiman's masterpiece.

9.15: Judith came over for our two-person book group to discuss the first part of The Stand (our thoughts will no doubt go up here later in the week.) Much wine and ice cream were consumed, as is often the way with book clubs. I debated the wisdom of reading a Neil Gaiman and a Stephen King at the same time, as they are quite similar in tone and genre. But I wasn't going to pass over this long-awaited reread, and I'll just hope I don't get them too muddled in my mind over the next few days!

American Gods is one of those books where I discover new things on every reread, and this time I was struck by a deeper level of meaning to one of Mr Wednesday's comments early on than the meaning Shadow takes from it. (Spoilerish speculation.) When Wednesday says somewhat sadly, of Laura's death, "If it could have but have been any other way," is he speaking about how Laura died, or that she had to die at all. How much of the plot is Wednesday responsible for? What lengths did he have to go to in order to get Shadow on that plane, at that time, and free of all ties, so that he could travel with Wednesday?

Monday Stats: 

Pages read: 162
Books read from: American Gods
Books finished: 0
Favourite reread so far: American Gods
On the menu: Hot cross buns, Graze nut snack, bit of accidentally broken Easter egg.

Tuesday and Wednesday

I've been at work the last two days, so not so much time for rereading, and yesterday when I came home I spent a lot of time clicking through websites and social media, just wasting time. So it was mid-evening before I really got settled back into American Gods, which might explain why I got so very emotional about the cover design. These are the editions of Neil's books which I've got (at least, his first four novels for adults and two story collections) and the black covers, with the scratchy lettering and the slightly grungy sort of style, seem to me to give a better representation of the contents.

In the last few years, Headline brought out a new set of covers, in different colours, and they're very nice, but I don't like them half as much. They seem too polished and mass-market. Where is the edginess, the cult appeal? Sure, everyone has opinions on cover redesigns, and usually you like the ones you read first. Oddly, I seem to have formed such a strong attachment to the black covers that it stretches back in time to years before I even read Neil Gaiman! I must have looked at those books dozens of times over the years; they were always there in the sci-fi and fantasy sections of the bookshops; I knew of Neil because of co-writing Good Omens with Terry Pratchett, but although different university friends recommended Neverwhere and Sandman and Stardust, I didn't read any of them for years. And yet I still see these books on my shelves and am taken back to my student days, because - had I but known it - these were the books I was searching for, with their odd mixture of the gothic, and myth, and dark fairytale, and a cracking great yarn. They remind me of finding my place for the first time, among the arts students and the misfits, finding the dividing line between the cool misfits and the nerds was not this great chasm after all, but just a tiny scratch, and that I felt at home among my own people. And when I read Neverwhere for the first time, five years after it was first recommended to me, it reinforced that feeling that I was coming home. The impact of reading Neil's books reverberated backwards through time, to leave an impression on my memories even from a time before I'd read them.

So yes, a cover is a cover, and you can't judge a book by it. But the old style means a lot to me.

But anyway, about the story. I'm at about the midway point, where Shadow spends some time living at a lovely little town called Lakeside. It's a good town. Shadow can be sure of this, because everyone he meets tells him so. (If only it weren't for the good town's dark secret.) And this is one of my favourite parts of the book. The main plot is on hold for a while - or would be if Mr Wednesday didn't keep whisking Shadow off to meet different associates - and we spend a bit of quiet time with friendly neighbours, good food, an oasis in the middle of the chaos surrounding the old gods and the new. It won't last long, though...

Tuesday stats:

Books read from: American Gods - Neil Gaiman
Pages read: 120
Books finished this week: 0
Favourite reread so far: American Gods
On the menu: bits of Easter egg, apple

Wednesday stats:

Books read from: American Gods - Neil Gaiman
Pages read: 109 so far
Books finished this week: 0
Favourite reread so far: American Gods
On the menu: Peach and passionfruit cheesecake Graze snack, orange, easter egg, gingerbread biscuit

Thursday and Friday

Thursday was another working day for me, and then afterwards I met up with my sister, who is on the Island for the bank holiday weekend, and went in search of the many weird and wonderful flavours of hot cross buns on offer at Marks and Spencer. I watched a bit of Life on Mars with her in the evening, and spent ages chatting, so only read a small amount of American Gods that day. Today (Good Friday) really felt like a spring bank holiday - the only day of this weekend, I understand, in which we'll be having decent weather, so I took my book out and read it in the park, enjoying the sunshine. Although it's expected to rain from tomorrow, I must remember that today, it felt like spring.

I've read American Gods three or four times now, and the first half I remember quite vividly, but I only had a vague recollection of the final showdown, the grand denouement, so I got to piece together all over again what was really going on in Wednesday's plans. I think it makes a little bit more sense with every reading. (My speculation from the other day was referred to later on in the text, and yet I'd never picked up on its significance before.)

This post is getting a bit long, now, so I'll start a new one for my next rereads. I'm off to a fiftieth birthday party this evening, so I doubt I'll get very much reading done. Anne of Green Gables next, I think, or perhaps I'll whizz through Through the Woods tonight (a quick read) and start Anne tomorrow.

Thursday stats:

Books read from: American Gods - Neil Gaiman
Pages read: 48
Books finished this week: 0
Favourite reread so far: American Gods
On the menu: Galaxy Caramel egg, caramel shortbread, the aroma of fresh-baked hot cross buns

Friday stats:

Books read from: American Gods - Neil Gaiman
Through the Woods - Emily Carroll
Pages read: 265
Books finished this week: 1
Favourite reread so far: American Gods
On the menu: steak and cheese sandwich from Subway, Graze herby bread basket snack, bits of Easter egg.

Sunday 20 March 2016

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke

It is England at the beginning of the nineteenth century: the time of King George III, and the Napoleonic Wars. And yet it is not quite England as we know it. For this England is made up of two kingdoms: the north and the south. The King in the North, the Raven King, John Uskglass, was the last practicing magician in the country, but he disappeared three hundred years ago. Since then, English magic has been limited to dusty old men reading dusty old books, studying the theory of magic, but the theory alone. Actual, visible, practical magic is a thing of the past. Or so it seemed, until now...

The story opens with the framing device of a third party - not Norrell, nor Strange, but Mr Segundus, posing the question to the society of magicians: why is magic no longer done in Britain? The following thousand pages proceed to tell us exactly what happens when mortals meddle with magic. The two titular magicians could not be more unlike each other. Gilbert Norrell, the one and only practical magician turned up at the beginning of the book, is a pompous, dull, irritating man, cautious of the powers of magic, and desiring that he should keep the secrets to himself. Meanwhile, Jonathan Strange is outwardly charming, a brilliant apprentice magician, but capricious and reckless.

The story really begins when, against his better judgement, Mr Norrell resurrects a lady from the dead, making a bargain with a shady, David-Bowie-in-Labyrinth-like figure from fairyland known only as the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. Once the fairies get involved, nothing is predictable, and Clarke spins a bewitching tale that draws you into this world like and yet unlike our own, until you are as bewitched as if you too spent half of your life dancing the nights away at the gentleman's kingdom of Lost-hope. Strange and Norrell contrast with one another in almost every aspect of character and approach to magic; one in favour of bringing back magic to English shores in full force, the other wanting only to control it and keep it secure, and by no means to involve the fairies, whose morality, if they have such a thing, is completely alien and unpredictable.

It took me a decade between first buying Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell as a Christmas present for my dad, and actually getting around to reading it. Even though I suspected it would be right up my street, I found the length a little intimidating, and when I watched the TV adaptation last year, I was the only person in the room not to know the story - a rare event, especially in this genre. Strange and Norrell is absolutely my sort of story, full of dark fantasy and magical story-telling, dangerous fairies, set in a deftly-drawn alternative history and told with dry wit. The narrative reads as though written at the time it was set, and the language and spelling of the regency era serves to draw the reader even further into the world of the novel -  with copious amounts of in-universe footnotes, giving background to the alternative version of history.

Although there were a few chapters near the end (when Strange is travelling in Venice) which seemed less tightly-woven into the plot than the rest, on the whole, the pages flew by easily, and I thoroughly enjoyed spending a week or so in this magical world. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is an indulgent and all-absorbing novel, an excellent comfort read on long winter nights.

Monday 14 March 2016

Coming soon: Rereadathon and The Stand, plus General Rambling

Hi all. I realise I haven't blogged for over a month. I just had a week's holiday off work, but have been feeling a little run down (which is crazy, seeing as it is the quiet period at work!) and so, yeah. I got out of the habit. I'd been getting into some habits in some ways: regular bedtimes and waking-up times, writing on my mornings off, reading over breakfast and before bed. Then holiday happened and I got ill (just a cold, nothing serious, but it messed up my routine.) Still,  I've got notes to write up about some of the books I've been reading in the last couple of weeks, so look out for a mini-review post in the near future.

I haven't even officially signed up to Bex's rereadathon yet - which is shocking as I was the one who had been badgering her about doing another one. Time to rectify that now! That starts next Monday and runs for ten days, over the Easter weekend and finishing on Wednesday 30th March. I'll definitely be taking the opportunity to reread American Gods, which has been in the public eye a bit more lately, with the announcements of some of the key players (Ricky Whittle as Shadow and Ian McShane as Mr Wednesday, so far.) It doesn't match Neverwhere as my favourite Neil Gaiman book, but it's one I reread semi-regularly and which is better on each reading. Also I fancy rereading The Charioteer by Mary Renault, and considering that Spring is in the air and I bought yet another copy on the bookshop crawl, it is time to revisit my old friend and kindred spirit Anne Shirley.

But I won't be exclusively rereading next week, as my best friend Judith and I are reading Stephen King's The Stand for our sporadic two-person book club. I'm thinking up discussion questions and everything. So I might post our thoughts on the blog after each section, and if you've read the book (or even want to readalong with us, although we've already started and due to read Book 1 by next week) you are very welcome to join in the comments section below. With Stephen King's books, I either love them (The Shining, Carrie, 11.22.63) or am fairly indifferent (Cell, Needful Things. Doctor Sleep falls somewhere in between.) Oh, and then there's Dreamcatcher. Except there isn't because I won't acknowledge it. So, in fact, King's books range from best book ever! to utterly unreadable. Thankfully, The Stand is so far shaping up to be on the excellent end of the scale - which is a relief considering it's about 1400 pages. However, when travelling up to London at the weekend, I kind of regretted starting a book in which a killer flu kills off most of the world's population. On the ferry, on the shuttle-bus, on the train, I was surrounded by the chorus of cough, cough, sniffle, sniffle, sneeze, sneeze. Nice timing!

Due to the aforementioned super-flu going around, most of my plans for the weekend got cancelled by one friend after another, but at least I got to spend more time with Laura in Richmond, which was great fun. Bex was supposed to join us, but alas, was unable to make it. We started off at the Hummingbird Bakery with a many-layered slice of chocolate and salted caramel cake about the size of my head. Naturally, we visited the bookshops, as well as the charity shops, and Laura introduced me to a new children's bookshop in which I did a dramatic reading of Please Mr Panda for her. (This is an excellent picture book, if not quite as good as I Want My Hat Back.) Then we ended up at Starbucks for probably a couple of hours, sharing our life stories and putting the world to rights. We had such a great time it didn't occur to us to take any pictures. Why would I waste time photographing cake when I could be putting it in my face? Where cake is concerned, I have no shame.

Hopefully I will have some book reviews for you before the end of the week, but if not, see you on the 21st for the rereadathon!
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